Rebecca Maez was sentenced on Friday to ten years in prison for the death of cannabis advocate Jenny Kush. Maez, 28, was drunk and driving the wrong way in an HOV lane on I-25 last September when she collided head-on with a car being driven by Kush's boyfriend, Jeremy DePinto, who was injured in the crash. Kush, his passenger, was killed.
Maez pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide and assault last month. At an emotional sentencing hearing on Friday, she pleaded for forgiveness as Kush's loved ones told the judge about the amazing mother, daughter and friend that they lost.
"She was the sweetest, most generous, most selfless, most sincere person I ever met," said her friend Paul Garrett. At the end of his statement, a tearful Garrett told the judge, "Please don't let Jenny's death mean nothing to you. It means everything to us."
As William Breathes reported in his cover story, "The life and tragic death of cannabis advocate Jenny Kush," Jennifer Monson -- better known Jenny Kush -- moved with her four children to Denver in 2010 to get away from a toxic relationship in Montana. She quickly became a fixture on the local cannabis scene, eventually landing her own radio show, SexPot Radio. She and DePinto started dating in September 2010 and soon fell in love. "We considered ourselves to be teammates," DePinto told us last year.
In the early hours of September 1, 2013, Kush and DePinto were driving home from the (hed) p.e. concert at Summit Music Hall. Wary of drunk drivers on Labor Day weekend, Kush told DePinto to take the HOV lane. "It will be safer," she said.
That turned out not to be the case. The same night, Maez was thrown out of a bar in north Denver for being too intoxicated, prosecutor Adrienne Green said at Friday's hearing. A friend tried to take Maez's keys away, Green said, but Maez got them back. She then climbed behind the wheel of a borrowed car and made a sharp left turn off of 70th Avenue onto the off-ramp for northbound I-25. There were no barriers or signs to warn her that she was driving in the wrong direction.
In court on Friday, DePinto recounted what happened next. He said he remembers seeing headlights coming straight at them and then the car spinning out of control. When it came to a stop, in the oncoming lanes of southbound traffic, he got out -- and then crawled back in to try to save Kush.
"The car was smoking and there was my love, dying," DePinto said through tears. He recalled her whimpering as she struggled to breathe what would be her last breaths. "Then someone pulled me out of the car and I never saw her again."
Continue for more on Friday's sentencing. Friday's sentencing hearing was held in a packed fifth-floor courtroom that was warm due to the number of people crowding the benches and filling the jury box. Maez's family and friends sat on one side. Kush and DePinto's family and friends, including three of Kush's four children, sat on the other. Many of them were wearing purple and black T-shirts printed with a drawing of an angel that Kush had used for one of her tattoos.
Both sides were given an opportunity to address the judge. Maez's supporters went first. Just two of them spoke, including Maez's younger sister. As she sobbed, she told the judge that Maez had raised her since she was six years old and that she didn't want to lose her again. She'd lost her big sister once before, she said, and it led to her skipping school and making some bad choices. She said she's now back on track.
"Without my sister, I wouldn't have made it nowhere," she said. "She's more of my mom than anything." While she spoke, Maez could be heard sobbing as well.
Kush's loved ones addressed the judge next. Friend Georgia Edson -- co-owner of iCannabisRadio, the station on which Kush hosted her show -- said she'd like to see Maez sentenced to "enough time" in prison to turn her life around. It's clear that Maez has a dangerous relationship to alcohol, Edson said, referencing Maez's prior DUI arrest and subsequent arrests for driving with a revoked license.
"We want Ms. Maez to live a productive life," Edson said, "because that's the only way we'll find peace." She said Kush's supporters will be "quietly rooting her on."
Garrett spoke to the judge with Kush's eldest daughter, now seventeen, by his side. He asked the judge to impose the maximum possible sentence: 36 years in prison.
"She is a threat to society," he said of Maez.
Because of her, Garrett said, Kush's children are growing up without a mother and he is living without his best friend, who was always there for him during his own struggles.
Continue for more from Kush's friends and family. Kush's mother, Lori Monson, prepared a statement but became too emotional to read it. So the prosecutor, Green, read it instead. It described the middle-of-the-night phone call Monson received telling her that her "first baby girl" had been killed: "My world came crashing down on me, just as the car had crashed into her."
Monson is now raising Kush's four children, ages seventeen, fourteen, twelve and six. She said the kids have struggled with emotional and behavioral issues since their mother was killed. "Every time I look at her children, I see her," Monson's statement said.
She and her husband have suffered, too. "There is not a day that I don't cry myself to sleep," her statement said. She also asked that Maez be sentenced to 36 years.
Similarly, DePinto's mother read a letter written by her daughter, DePinto's sister. It described how Kush had been like a sister to her and had helped reunite their family by setting an example of kindness. The night that Kush was killed, she wrote, she left her a message on Facebook saying that she liked Kush's new rainbow-colored hairstyle and she was looking forward to attending the First Friday Art Walk on Santa Fe Drive with her. But Kush never got that message, DePinto's sister wrote.
"Jenny will be missed but never forgotten," she wrote.
DePinto was the last to speak. "Since the accident, my life has exploded," he said.
He described how in Kush, he'd found his soulmate and how they lived a "fantasy life" for three years. They knew each others' secrets and shared each others' passions, he said.
Kush was killed just days before his birthday, DePinto said, and he told the judge how after he came home from the hospital, reminders of her were everywhere -- including in the kitchen, where Kush, a talented baker, had left the makings of a treat: cups of flour and sugar, chocolate in pots waiting to be melted and a rack of homemade gummy unicorns, which were his favorite. "Everywhere I looked was a life unfinished," he said.
Nothing can change what happened to Kush, DePinto said, and he told the judge that he doesn't know "what the right answer is." But he said he does know that his car wasn't the first that Maez passed that night driving the wrong way in the HOV lane.
"We were the ones she chose, though," he said, "so please make a good choice today."
Continue for more on Maez's statement to the judge. Maez also addressed the court. Choking on her tears, she said she wanted to start by expressing her condolences to Kush's family, DePinto's family and DePinto himself. "I know words will never express how truly sorry I am," she said.
She called her decision to drive drunk "a horrible mistake" and said she "has to answer for what I've done." She said she chose to plead guilty because she didn't want to put Kush's loved ones through the pain of a trial. "The sooner this is over, the sooner you guys can have some healing in your lives," she said.
She said she's not a bad person, though she feels she's failed as a role model for her younger sister. And she said she regularly prays for forgiveness.
"I pray that you don't hold hate in your heart against me," she said.
Prosecutor Green told the judge that if the case had gone to trial, she would have asked for the maximum prison sentence of 36 years. But because Maez admitted fault and pleaded guilty, Green said she was instead asking for a sentence of twelve years for Kush's death and six years for DePinto's injuries, with the sentences to run consecutively, meaning Maez would serve a total of eighteen years.
Judge Eric Elliff imposed an even lighter sentence: ten years for vehicular homicide and five years for vehicular assault, with the sentences to run concurrently, meaning at the same time. He said that while it's impressive that Maez now has support from her community, as evident from letters submitted to the court that he didn't read aloud, her actions prior to the accident suggest that she deserves to serve what he called "a lengthy sentence."
"I think there's a good person there," he said, "but you made a terrible, terrible mistake."
Maez was put in handcuffs and escorted out of the courtroom. Some of Kush's supporters began clapping, but Elliff abruptly cut them off. "No!" he shouted. "Don't! I will clear this courtroom if I hear applause!" As Maez exited, some of her loved ones shouted "I love you!" as the bailiffs told them to calm down.
Continue to read Kush supporters' reactions to the sentence. Afterward, Kush's friend Garrett said he and others were relieved to be finished with the legal portion of the ordeal, "so we can start on the healing." He said he was hoping Maez would get a longer prison sentence, "but it is what it is."
Similarly, DePinto said he feels that the sentence isn't fair but that fate is in control. He expressed disappointment that although Maez's prison sentence is ten years, she could get released to a halfway house sooner. "Jenny was 34 years old and she never gets to come back," he said. "Rebecca gets to be a free woman in likely less than five years."
Outside the courthouse, Kush's loved ones gathered for a group photo. It was a sea of purple, which was Kush's favorite color. Before the camera clicked, they shouted in unison, "Jenny Fucking Kush!"
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An online fundraiser for Kush's children has been set up at jennykush.com.
More from our Marijuana archive: "Photos: Jenny Kush, pot activist, remembered at moving (and loud) candlelight vigil."Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org